Whitworthians Lukas Bratcher, ’10, and Robin Amend orchestrate instrument innovation
Whitworth Today : Fall 2008
by Julie Riddle, ’92
Robin Amend’s grandfather, Bert Amend (far right) with his trio, circa 1906.
(Photo courtesy of Robin Amend)
It’s quite possible that Lukas Bratcher and Robin Amend have never uttered the words “I can’t.” Bratcher, a junior speech-communication major, was born with a non-progressive condition called amnyoplasia arthrogryposis multiplex congenital, which causes stiff joints and weak or missing muscles in all four limbs. Bratcher is largely confined to a wheelchair, yet he is an accomplished brass musician who has performed throughout the country. Amend, who attended Whitworth in the early 1970s, is a maestro at repairing band instruments, but lacks expertise in electronics or mechanical engineering. Yet he designed a device using a video-game joystick that allows Bratcher to pursue his love of music and performing.
Bratcher crossed paths with his first horn in Saudi Arabia, where he lived for 12 years while his father worked for an oil company and his mother taught middle school. Bratcher and his fifth-grade classmates were required to learn to play instruments, and his music instructor recommended that he try the baritone, a brass horn shaped like a tuba. “I didn’t really choose the instrument, the instrument chose me,” he says. “There were a lot of factors to consider. I can’t hold up a trumpet or trombone, and I can’t play all of the keys on a saxophone or clarinet.” Bratcher played a European-style baritone, which he could lay in his lap and which was small enough for him to reach the keys.
The summer after fifth grade, Bratcher, his mom and his younger brother moved to Spokane. Just before school began, Bratcher broke his arm; he joined the concert band at Northwood Middle School in spite of the setback. He faced another challenge when he learned that the European baritone was not available. Bratcher had to use a larger American version of the horn, and his hands weren’t able to activate the valves. He resorted to just blowing into the mouthpiece, which produced one note. In rehearsals and concerts, he waited for the note to come along in the score and played it with gusto. That single note fell silent when Bratcher’s horn was stolen from his driveway and he couldn’t play at all.
As a child, Robin Amend could read notes before he could read words. He grew up in an extended family of talented musicians who toured and performed in concerts and provided entertainment at community meetings and at their own family get-togethers. Amend is a deft instrumentalist who has also sung in bands ranging from country rock and folk to bluegrass and barbershop quartets.
He received a partial music scholarship to attend Whitworth, where he took private voice lessons and sang in the Whitworth Choir. But music would not be Amend’s career: he majored in chemistry and planned to become a doctor, like his father. “I never considered doing music for a living,” he explains, “because in my family, you play music for fun.” His pre-med plans surrendered to his heart for music when Spokane Falls Community College launched an instrument-repair school and Amend’s phone began ringing. “Three people called me and
said ‘You’ve got to get out there,'”Amend says. “They knew it would be a natural fit for me, because I was good mechanically and could play most instruments by that point.”
For the past 28 years, Amend and his wife, Debbie, have owned and operated Amend Music Center, which has grown to include two Spokane stores that handle instrument repair and rentals for schools throughout the Spokane region. Their South Hill store is also a museum of sorts: its walls are lined with vintage instruments and band uniforms from area schools; a glass showcase features sepia photos of Amend’s paternal grandfather, Bert, playing a piano and posing with fellow band members. But these men were no ordinary musicians. In the early 1900s, Bert lost his right arm in an accident while working at a cedar shake-mill. An avid – and determined – musician, he devised a harness to fit the stub of his arm and built attachments to hold a pick and strum a guitar or mandolin, or draw a bow over a cello’s strings. Bert played the piano using an attachment with finger-like extensions; he patented the device as the “Artificial Hand for Playing Chords” and assembled a group of disabled musicians who performed on the Pacific Northwest vaudeville circuit.
Robin Amend followed in his grandfather’s footsteps in the late 1980s, when a local band director asked him to modify a clarinet’s keys for a girl with a malformed hand. Since then he has adapted a wide range of instruments; he’s currently modifying a flute for a professional musician in Ottawa, Canada. How is it that grandfather and grandson unwittingly took up the same vocation? “I think it’s that we both shared a love of music and a heart for disabled people,” Amend says.
Amend’s instrument-modification career took a turn in 1990, when he began tinkering with computer equipment he had bought at a garage sale and grew fascinated by how he could control movement with a joystick. “I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea I think God gave me, that joysticks can be used for things other than computer games,” he says. “I woke Debbie up and said, ‘We can do this. It can work,’ and she said, ‘What are you talking about?'”
What Amend was talking about is now known as assistive technology. In 1993 Amend applied for and received a Small Business Innovative Research Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. With the funding and the help of a childhood friend who is president of an electronics manufacturing firm, Amend built a prototype device he named the Amend MIAD (Musical Instrument Actuating Device). The first device Amend produced was for a girl who played the alto sax. “It worked great,” he says, “and it got better as we went along.”
Then Lukas Bratcher came along and pushed Amend’s inventive creativity to a new level.
When parents of students in Bratcher’s band program rallied and raised funds to replace his stolen horn, he selected a euphonium, a four-valve cousin of the baritone. Bratcher’s band director, Lee Shook, introduced him to Amend, who signed on to adapt his new instrument. “It was a totally new game,” Amend says, because the euphonium has different fingerings than an alto sax.
Bratcher’s specialized MIAD comprised a joystick mounted on the arm of his wheelchair; battery-charged wiring connected the joystick to a box mounted above the euphonium’s valves. Moving the joystick sent different electrical impulses to solenoids that depressed the horn’s keys with the speed of fingers. “It’s not a keyboard, where you push a button and it makes music,” Amend says. “You have to make it work. You’re learning to play the instrument just like anybody else. You have to learn which position plays which note.”
By the time the device was finished, Bratcher had fallen behind his middle-school band-mates and was moved to the beginning band program. “I had to relearn everything, so I was back at square one,” he says. Bratcher persevered and practiced faithfully. “Practicing is not fun,” he says, “but it allows me to do what I love to do, which is perform. You have to do the hard stuff to get to the good stuff.” Bratcher’s four years at Mead High School were a whirlwind of practices and performances: He was a member of the jazz band, concert band, and the award-winning marching band, which toured throughout the Northwest.
Bratcher’s music aspirations suffered a serious setback his sophomore year, however, when his euphonium was stolen a second time. When Bratcher replaced his euphonium, he called again on Amend’s expertise. By that point, Bratcher’s levels of playing and performing had advanced to the extent that customizing a new device pushed Amend to the edge of his abilities. “The device has to be able to withstand a lot, because I play a lot,” Bratcher says. He connected with two brothers, one a mechanical engineer in Spokane and the other an electrical engineer with Boeing, in Seattle, who worked with Amend to refine his device to meet Bratcher’s demanding performance needs. “I’m just an instrument-repair guy who had an idea and goofed around and tried to make it work,” Amend says. “These guys constructed a heavy-duty joystick and hardwired it to work specifically for Lukas’ euphonium.”
Bratcher, who received a partial music scholarship to attend Whitworth, has been a member of the Whitworth Wind Symphony for three years, was a member of Jazz Ensemble II for a year, and has taken private lessons with Professor of Music Richard Strauch. “I like playing with groups that challenge me, so I can learn and grow,” Bratcher says. “The wind symphony is a good place for me right now. I’m always challenged and I’ve become a better musician.”
In 2007 Bratcher was selected by audition to join the Oregon Crusaders Drum & Bugle Corps, an elite group of young musicians that competes throughout the country each summer. “It’s the Olympics of marching bands,” he says. Bratcher spent the past two summers putting in 12-hour rehearsal days for two-and-a-half weeks before hitting the road for drum-corps competitions. During performances, he was stationed with the large percussion instruments on the sideline. Last summer he was a featured soloist and did what any corps soloist would do: he moved to the center of the field, where he played as the band backed him in a U-shape format. Then he navigated his chair back to his station and rejoined the score. “We competed all across the country and got ranked every time,” Bratcher says.
Prior to joining the Oregon Crusaders, Bratcher had tried out for the Blue Devils, a drum corps based in Concord, Calif., that is the most decorated group in the history of Drum Corps International. Bratcher received a perfect score for his music performance, but no points for marching. “Their marching is extremely demanding,” Bratcher says. “They require that everyone be on the field and I can’t argue with that. Some people say it’s discrimination but I say no, that’s how it is.” Even though Bratcher didn’t make the squad, the Blue Devils invited him to play the national anthem at its first competition. Bratcher soloed before a stadium crowd in Concord. “I was scared out of my mind,” he says, “but it went perfectly. It was an honor to give an invited performance for the Blue Devils.”
Bratcher’s years playing the euphonium and the people who have pitched in along the way have brought him “blessing after blessing after blessing.” As much as he loves music and performing, Bratcher, like Amend, has chosen to not become a professional musician. “Music won’t pay the bills unless you perform and travel all the time,” he says. “That’s not how I want to live; that’s not how I want music to be for me. I enjoy it too much for it to become my job.”
Unlike his grandfather, Bert, Robin Amend didn’t patent the MIAD because it would preclude other people being able to make similar devices. “The whole point is to help disabled people play instruments,” he says. “I want somebody to see Lukas and say, ‘Wow, that’s cool. I bet I could make one of those.'” Amend says that as he was honing his first device, Bratcher was the right person who came along at the right time. “From an inventor’s perspective, Lukas is the perfect person to work with. He’s a natural musician and works hard. He gets discouraged but he keeps going – that’s what musicians have to do.”